Since its introduction in its current form, the Macbook Air has been one of the go-to laptops in the travel space for 4 years now. And why not? It was able to do thin and light, with decent battery life well before anyone else could do it (and market it) in a big way.

But it looks like the torch may finally be passing. The design that was once revolutionary is looking pretty old and boring by today’s standards, and the value that the “made for consumer” Air had versus the original, business minded Ultrabooks on the PC side (read: made for corporate customers at big corporate price tags) is all gone.

Last week we reviewed the new Dell XPS 13, our new top pick for travel notebooks / Ultrabooks. Today, we’ll compare it to the long-running champ, the Macbook Air 13. We’re spec-ing them out like this (our favorite setup for travelers and digital nomads):

Intel Core i5 Processor (5th Generation)
8GB Memory
256GB SSD
13″ Display

$1399 USD

How the XPS 13 Stacks up to the Macbook Air 13 for Travel

We travelers have simple requests from our computers that enable us to work from abroad. We want something lightweight, with battery life for the work day, and now enough features that can handle all that our digital nomad lifestyles require. The Macbook Air and the Dell XPS 13 both fit the bill, but like clothes shopping after you’ve been working your beach body out, let’s look at which is the better fit here in 2015.

Size, Weight and Construction

While both are both thin and light, the new Dell XPS 13 is just a smaller machine… and in a race like this, smaller really is better. Every dimension squeezes down in the Dell, losing a couple of inches in depth and an inch in width compared to the Macbook Air, thanks in part to the thin bezels around the Dell XPS 13 display.

Dell XPS
Height: 0.33-0.6″ (9-15mm)
Width: 11.98″ (304mm)
Depth: 7.88″ (200mm)
Weight: 2.8lbs (1.26kg) for touch

Macbook Air 13
Height: 0.11-0.68″ (3-17mm)
Width: 12.8″ (325mm)
Depth: 8.94″ (227mm)
Weight: 2.96 lbs (1.35 kg)

Both offer machined aluminum designs, but the gorilla glass that the Dell XPS 13 uses for durability puts it a step above.

Advantage: XPS 13

 

Screen

laptop-xps-13-love-pdp-design-5While Apple was out in front of everyone else when they released their high-resolution “Retina” displays on the iMac and the Macbook Pro a few years back, the high-res screen hasn’t made its way onto the Macbook Air, even with the refresh the model saw just a few weeks ago.

The 1440 x 900 display on the Macbook just doesn’t stand up to the competition these days. Even the iPad with a screen smaller than 10″ has been HD since early 2012.

It seems like every notebook (and certainly any Ultrabook that a traveler may look at) offers at least an HD (1080P) screen, and the Dell XPS 13 smashes that with QHD+ (3200 x 1800). The display on the XPS 13 is also a much higher quality IPS panel (offering better viewing angles and color reproduction) than the cheaper TN display on the Macbook Air 13. The XPS 13 just looks better, much better.

The XPS 13 also offers a touchscreen, which I’m still luke-warm about. I just don’t see much of an application with it on a notebook, though it made scrolling on a spreadsheet this morning a little more “fun” than I’m used to having with a spreadsheet. That sounds like a quotable.

Advantage: XPS 13

 

Keyboard and Touchpad

Both the Macbook Air 13 and the Dell XPS 13 offer nice “chiclet-style” backlit keyboards and large touchpads. For years, Apple has led the industry on touchpads, and while the new “Precision” touchpad on the XPS 13 is a great deal better than what we would see on other PC notebooks a few years back, the Macbook Air 13 is still a slightly nicer experience with gestures that just work, and an always smooth experience.

These new Precision touchpads have been in the works for years by Microsoft, and they are expected to be fully utilized in Windows 10 released later this summer. Until then, it’s a excellent touchpad compared to anything not on a Macbook.

(Note: Dell just sent out a firmware update for the touchpad on March 30th, 2015. We’ll update this section when we’ve had a chance to see if there is a performance difference.)

Advantage: Macbook Air 13

 

Ports & Connectivity

macboko air

A smaller form factor means that manufacturers need to be very careful to include what we really need.

Dell XPS 13
USB 3.0 w/Powershare (2)
mini DisplayPort (1)
SDXC card reader
headset jack (multi use)
Noble lock
802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.0

Macbook Air 13
USB 3.0 (2)
Thunderbolt 2 port (up to 20 Gbps)
SDXC card reader
headset jack
802.11ac
Bluetooth 4.0

Pretty much the same here. Both work with external displays, though you may require an adapter. Both the Macbook Air 13 and Dell XPS 13 offer support for the newest wireless standards. One small bonus is that the XPS 13 has Powershare on its USB 3.0 ports. That means that they can charge your devices (smartphones, tablets) up to twice as fast as a regular USB 3.0 port.

The Thunderbolt port on the Macbook Air 13 is sort of like Betamax. Technically superior when compared to USB, but like Firewire that Apple also tried to champion for years, it’s expensive and essentially dead in the water.

If you need extra ports like ethernet, HDMI etc, you’ll need an adapter/dongle. Dell offers a 4-in-1 adapter for travel that will get you a pair of USB 2.0 ports, ethernet, HDMI and VGA for $74.99. It’s small and pocketable. They also offer separate dongles around $30 each.

While Apple offers no combo adapter, they do sell dongles for ethernet, HDMI, and VGA for $29.99 to $34.99 each.  And with many things Apple, you might be stuck buying a specific, often expensive Apple authorized adapter, as generic options may not be available, particularly abroad..

Advantage: XPS 13 (slight)

 

Battery Life

Both offer “all-day” battery life, which I think is a big win in today’s world, particularly if you’re trying to finish an article in a country with frequent power outages, or the beach bar doesn’t have a plug close by.

It’s worth saying that while working off of the battery gives you a level of freedom, one of the ways that they are able to squeeze out that extra juice to last you those extra few hours is by slowing the processor of your computer down. If you are working with things like video or photos, plugging in may improve performance.

Even

 

Designdell xps13 trackpad

As I mentioned above, while the Macbook Air once led the way in terms of design, they’ve fallen woefully behind. The Dell looks slick and modern in silver and black, and the near bezel-free “infinity” display makes the XPS 13 the new leader in terms of design. It looks new, it looks fresh, and it feels solid.

Advantage: XPS 13

 

Software

I’ll be honest and say that this is going to come down to personal preference. If you use Windows, you’ll probably prefer to stick with Windows (XPS 13), and if you use Mac OS, you’ll likely want to stick with the Macbook Air 13.

Much of what we work on these days is in the browser, so the OS is making less and less of a difference every year.

Even

 

Warranty

Generally, warranty is a pretty simple process if you’re in the USA, Canada, or Europe. There will almost certainly be an authorized service depot near by, and after a quick phone call for troubleshooting.

The waters get murkier when you’re traveling outside of these places.

Apple lists its warranty as having “Global repair coverage,” with an asterisk beside leading to the fine print.
“Availability of each option depends on country in which service is requested and location of Apple Authorized Service Provider. Apple may also request that the customer replace components with readily installable parts.”

And that’s the rub. If you’re in a country without an Apple Store or authorized retailer (and that’s a lot), you’ll be out of luck.

Extended warranty is available with Applecare for up to three years (total).

For Dell, it’s also murky. They have Dell service contact numbers available in over 100 countries, and service centers in 160 countries, but how the warranty will work is a little up in the air. I received mixed messages from Dell Support on this on exactly how the process it will go.  Essentially call the local number (or reach out on twitter) and then see what they say.

The good news is that you’ll almost certainly be able to get Dell qualified techs to work on your notebook if worse came to worse, but how you’ll have the navigate that process is a question I couldn’t get a clear answer on.

“A customer is entitled to a warranty, the terms do not differ by region or age of the system. Refer to Dell’s Basic Hardware Service Description for more details.”

Dell also offers next-day business service and also an accidental coverage plan that covers dropping, water damage etc at an additional cost.

Even

 

But… What About the New Macbook?

Just a few weeks ago, Apple announced the new Macbook, a curious computer than sort of reminded me of the original Macbook Air, the one that seemed to compete with Netbooks, but at 4x the price. While it’s still listed as “coming soon” and we can’t get our hands on it yet, we’ve already been critical about the new Macbook’s lack of ports. Though the new fanless design of the Macbook is intriguing to us, we’ll just have to see how the performance stacks up. And while it’s lighter than the Dell XPS 13 (0.92kg vs 1.26kg), the width, length, and height are all a wash, with the Dell giving a larger 13.3″ touch-screen display instead of a 12″ display.

Apple is doubling down on the fact that wireless technologies will progress fast enough to rid us of our need for ports. But until all of my important travel gadgets like my cameras, external backup hard drives, and USB thumb drives go wireless, it’s just not a compromise I can even consider in 2015. I’m not interested in having a bag full of too many adapters.

The jury will be out on the new Macbook until it is released in the near future. But for travelers, I wouldn’t recommend waiting for it. At the moment, the only thing it has going for it over the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is the weight.

 

The Verdict?

Here’s what it comes down to. If you’re looking for a Windows notebook for travel, then the Dell XPS 13 is it, and if you’re a flexi-Mac user and you’re looking to get the best option out there, the Dell XPS 13 is it. It’s a better, fresher design in a smaller, more travel friendly package. This is the kind of notebook that could make you change teams.

That said, if you’re married to MacOS, then a Macbook Air 13 is going to be your only option these days, and a fresher Macbook Air likely won’t find its way onto shelves for another year or more.

** This article was updated with newer information about the Dell warranty process from Dell Support**

What laptop are you traveling with?  Let us know in the comments below.

This Dell XPS 13 was provided to us for review by Intel and Dell.

Want more? Grab our free 5000 word guide
Plus regular tips, discounts and the best travel tech advice.
Subscribe
No spam, ever.
 

17 Responses

  1. mike

    Hey Dork-

    Did Dell give you a free computer for your review? Precisely why you cannot read sites like these. No credibility. You enjoy your Windoze computer, viruses and crap performance. That is why I migrated to apple after using windows for many years. I think I will stick with my Mac.
    Just like all the travel bloggers who review free hotel stays……The reviews are meaningless. That is why I only read the Travelfish site.

    Reply
    • Willdew

      So, tell me why the MacBook is better? Why do you think the review is bad? Aren’t you just angry over your beloved apple can’t keep up?

      Reply
    • LonelyTraveller

      It’s so sad that there has to be Apple fanboys like you =( I have been using Apple products many years but I’m going now back to PC because Apple has less and less to give. Most new Apple things are just useless gimmick which I can’t care less.

      Reply
  2. Simon Pierce

    Great review. I love my 13′ Air, but Apple is falling behind in this space. Fairly impressive if the Dell also has the ‘durability’ advantage. After switching teams in 2013, though (Windows 8 just really annoyed me), I think my comparison shopping will be between the Air and Pro when my present laptop gives up…

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      Thanks Simon. I too feel like Windows 8 has been a dud… like the kind where you wonder “what were they even thinking?” 8.1 was noticeably better, but I really wonder how non-savvy users were able to navigate the changes from Windows 8 without tossing their computer out the window. Looking forward to Windows 10 in a few months.

      The XPS 13 definitely feels solid (I spoke a bit about it more when I compared it to the Asus UX302 last week). I didn’t touch on the fact that the Dell is easier to open than the Macbook… not that there is a whole lot you could change in there besides SSD and wireless card.

      As someone who did switch, I’m curious if you moved over to use many of the Mac-only programs, or if you do most of your work in the browser these days?

      Reply
      • Simon Pierce

        Hi Dustin,

        Actually, it was fairly painless in terms of programs – the only one I had to ‘repurchase’ was MS Office for Mac, which was also a significant step backwards in usability unfortunately. All that did was accelerate my use of Google Docs etc. I bought Parallels for all the Windows-only programs I’d ‘need’… and never used it. I do some work in the browser (Trello, aforementioned Docs + Spreadsheets, WordPress, Gmail etc…), and other programs like Lightroom and Evernote were hassle-free to changeover.

        Once I worked out how the Mac OS worked, which was simple enough once I actually *tried*, I like the multiple workspaces, finger gestures etc. I just felt like I was able to work a lot faster – I was saving clicks everywhere. I’m totally a smug Mac user now 😉

      • Dustin Main

        @Simon haha 😉

        Well the switch (either way) has become a lot easier in the past few years as we’ve moved toward more cloud-based options.

        And you’re totally bang on that Mac is still way ahead on gestures / trackpads. I can’t believe I’m still waiting for intel / microsoft to get it right! It’s been years!

  3. robbo

    Great article guys. The one thing you forgot though. One is a Mac. The other isn’t! Seriously though, I travel with Mac only, iPhone, iPad, Macbook Air. But I can’t help but think Apple might have been too clever by half this time around. No ports is ridiculous at this time. Wi-fi is still not 100%. And as for powering other devices, I can cope with the camera. But to not even be able to insert a USB for remote printing. As someone who travels year round, I very often need to print pages from USB. I just thinks it’s a problem for Apple, I won’t be getting the new versions. I notice on the iPads they are including ports on the new model.

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      haha!

      Well I do agree with you about the Macbook. One thing that I think is good about it is that it will push accessory makers to make more products wireless.

      Still, not sure that sort of thing will be a good option for travelers for several years…

      Reply
  4. Gaye

    As a newbie to location independent working I’m still trying to decide which laptop to invest it, so this is very helpful. At the moment I’m making do with an iPad and a little Dell Inspiron Duo (which I bought back in 2011, but I don’t think these ever really took off), neither of which are very productive.
    Anyway one thing that you mentioned Dustin that made me think was about not seeing much of an application for a touch screen on a notebook. After using my iPad so much, and the Dell which also has a touchscreen, the first thing I reach for when I sit down at a ‘real’ computer or laptop is the screen! It’s just become second nature now. So I think I will need to add that to my ‘must have’ list 🙂

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      Ahh very interesting. Are there certain things that you find yourself trying to reach out for on your non-touchscreen laptop? Like scrolling websites? I’d be super curious to know.

      Also be sure to check out our other articles for “Digital Nomads” as I’m sure you’ll find some good tips for your new location independent life 🙂

      Reply
  5. Philip

    Intriguing article and timely for me Dustin. My 4-year-old Macbook Pro has made it round the world and then some but is showing signs of age. I was not impressed with the reviews of the new MBP, seems more like a toy than a workhorse. Thinking about a new workbook when I am stateside this summer. Maybe this will be the year I make the big switch. Hard to say. I do love my Apple devices and have had free repairs in Colombia and Thailand from smiling Apple resellers.

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      I hear ya Philip. MBP has always been a powerhouse in terms of performance and design. But these days, I think that with a tiny performance hit, you can get yourself into a much smaller package that works much better for most travelers.

      Let us know what you end up picking to go in your carry-on later this year. I think there could be some other interesting options coming out around summer with Windows 10 too. This could be the year that the grown-up tablet takes over… and that could be great for travelers.

      Reply
  6. John Mayson

    I like OS X and Windows 7. I just want the best tool for the job.

    Having said that I’m still enjoying traveling with my Acer Chromebook. Yes, I get it, it relies on a Wi-Fi connection. But I can do enough stuff offline that it’s hardly an issue. Very light, awesome battery life, and cheap enough that I wouldn’t be too heartbroken if something were to happen to it.

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      While it wouldn’t work for me (my photo editing and storage is a non-negotiable), I’d love to see how far Chromebooks have come over the years. I think they are becoming a more viable option for a traveler every day. Thanks for the reminder.

      Reply
  7. Eric @ Trans-Americas Journey

    During our ongoing Journey we’ve successfully had Dell on-site (yep, they came to me) warranty service in the US, Mexico (2x) and Nicaragua. For this reason alone for travel I’d only buy a Dell with warranty coverage. Luckily, we haven’t been able to to test Dell’s coverage in the 4 countries we’ve slowly traveled through since Nicaragua, but I’m sure somewhere along the way in South America we’ll be putting it to the test aagin.

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      Wow that sounds great. How difficult was it to go through their warranty process? Call a 1-800 number and then they sort it out from there?

      Did you have any sort of extended warranty plan?

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *